You won’t find this doughnut in any bakery…..

Kate Raworth’s doughnut didn’t come out of a bakery. It is her playful way of helping us recognize that there is a safe space, between making life good for all through a strong social foundation, and exceeding our planet’s ecological limits, in which we can all live well.

And it is an idea that has caught on with a lot of cities, because it brings two main societal categories – social problems and environmental problems – together in one framework. If the social foundation isn’t in order, too many people face poverty, loneliness or housing problems; but if housing prices help determine the city’s economic performance, it might look like the city is doing well but high prices mean many people can’t afford a house, says one of the people involved in Amsterdam’s doughnut planning.

Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

Raworth originally studied traditional economics but it seemed to her that its idea of the value of never-ending growth didn’t fit 21st century realities. She was working in the nonprofit world when she found a diagram of planetary boundaries that made life on earth possible. But if the planet had such boundaries, society also had boundaries – “kids not in school, not getting decent health care, people facing famine in the Sahel,” for example. She drew another circle within the scientists’ circle, and it looked like a doughnut.

After her bestselling book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist was published in 2017, people began thinking about ways to ‘downscale’ or localize its ideas to the city level. Raworth and biomimicry innovator Janine Benyrus worked on ways to bring together their different ways of thinking about people and place, and that grew into a much larger collaboration that came to involve Biomimicry 3.8, Circle Economy and C40 Cities, a network of 97 cities focused on climate action.

In 2019, C40 asked Raworth to create reports on Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Portland that would show where they were in terms of the doughnut. That led Amsterdam to develop a “circular strategy” that put the doughnut together with “circular economy,” which focuses on reducing, reusing and recycling. 

Marieke van Doorninck, Amsterdam’s deputy mayor for sustainability and urban planning, told Time that the doughnut was a revelation. “I was brought up in Thatcher times, in Reagan times, with the idea that there’s no alternative to our economic model. Reading the doughnut was like, Eureka! There is an alternative! Economics is a social science, not a natural one. It’s invented by people, and it can be changed by people.”

The international team never imagined they’d be launching the city-scale model in the middle of a pandemic but the timing was oddly fitting, because the pandemic has been forcing all kinds of changes. The launch happened in April 2020 in Amsterdam, when the city council formally adopted the Doughnut as the starting point for its public policy decisions for the next five years. The Amsterdam Donut Coalition, with 30 or so member groups, was already thinking about how to put the ideas into practice.

“The doughnut is a way to think about how to solve environmental and socio-economic challenges in a coherent and balanced way,” explains van Doorninck. “While the environment and the economy have long been approached in a piecemeal way, the model describes how societies and businesses can contribute to economic development that respects the boundaries of planet and society. Amsterdam’s “city doughnut” provides a target for the future and will be supplied with a great deal of data. Above all, the doughnut is expected to offer a compass for measuring prosperity beyond the here and now.”

Using the Doughnut at the city level starts by asking this question: How can our city be a home to thriving people in a thriving place, while respecting the wellbeing of all people and the health of the whole planet? As Raworth says, it “combines local aspiration – to be thriving people in a thriving place – with a global responsibility to live in ways that respect all people and the whole planet.”

In turn, this question leads to four sub-questions that offer lenses through which to plan. What would it mean for the people of the city to thrive? What would it mean for the city to thrive within its natural habitat? What would it mean for the city to respect the well-being of people worldwide? What would it mean for the city to respect the health of the whole planet?

These are not the usual questions city planners tackle but they have had a big impact. One sustainability advisor, reflecting on how the doughnut has changed Amsterdam’s approach, says that the model “is really part of our DNA now”.

Such discussions have already led to noticeable changes in Amsterdam. The implementation dossier includes some 200 projects, mostly driven by the city but some being individual initiatives, in three areas – food, consumer goods, and construction. They range from small changes such as  ‘true price’ tags in grocery stores that reflect the real costs of vegetables, to collecting old latex paint, to big infrastructure projects like Strandeiland (Beach Island), which is part of a bigger six-island development. 

Beach Island and its future neighbour, Buiteneiland, are focused on sustainability in ways the project’s first stage, completed in 2012, wasn’t. For example, “materials passports” will be needed when anyone builds on Beach Island so parts can be reused if buildings are taken down. It is part of the city’s new standards for sustainability and circular use of materials for contractors in all city-owned buildings. 

During the pandemic, the city realized many residents didn’t have computers but needed them during lockdown. So it collected old and broken laptops from people who could spare them, hired a firm to fix them, and distributed 3,500 to people in need. “It’s a small thing, but to me it’s pure doughnut,” van Doorninck told Time.

The city also is pushing private industry to change. The fashion industry agreed to a Denim Deal last October, committing it to produce 3 billion garments including 20% recycled materials by 2023, and the city will organize collections of old denim and eventually create a shared repair shop where people can get their jeans fixed. The denim suppliers say it wouldn’t have happened without government support and pressure.

Jennifer Drouin, manager of Amsterdam’s doughnut coalition, says the discussions have changed peoples’ mindsets and shown people the value of changes that have been driven by the pandemic. In her own neighborhood, she says, residents began using parking spaces to hold dinners with their neighbors during the summer, and eventually persuaded the municipality to convert many of the spaces into community gardens.

The doughnut model helps drive the structural changes that are needed to do things differently, says van Doorninck. “Our starting point for this strategy was: “You don’t have to do circular things, you have to do things circularly.” The doughnut is a fine model for that. Not only does it offer a theory about the connection between the social and the sustainable, but it also holds up a mirror to what the city is doing reasonably well, and where we are clearly falling short or crossing borders.” That helps illuminate areas where change is needed at the national and EU levels also.

While Amsterdam was the first to embrace the model, it was quickly followed by others – Copenhagen in June, the Brussels region and Dunedin, New Zealand in September, and Nanaimo, British Columbia in December. In the US, Portland, Oregon, is working on its own model and Austin, Texas may be close behind, Time reported. Raworth told CNBC in March that many more towns and cities worldwide are in contact every week, and work continues with partners in Costa Rica, India, Bangladesh, Zambia and Barbados, among others.

Part of the doughnut model’s value is its deeply participatory dynamic and the paradigm shift it embodies, says Barbara Trachte, secretary of state for the Brussels region.“I think people understand the power of the doughnut theory, to rethink the old economic mantras,” she told CNBC. “It gives them a positive boost, a sort of ‘let’s do it’ attitude, that can move mountains. And if the Brussels Region can help show the way, all the better.”

Sources:

Amsterdam Is Embracing a Radical New Economic Theory to Help Save the Environment. Could It Also Replace Capitalism? Time, Jan. 22, 2021

Amsterdam bet its post-Covid recovery on ‘doughnut’ economics — more cities are now following suit. CNBC, Mar. 25, 2021

Introducing the Amsterdam Doughnut. Kate Raworth, Apr. 8, 2020

The Doughnut Model for a Fairer, Greener Amsterdam. Green European Journal, Oct. 15, 2020

Amsterdam City Doughnut. Doughnut Economics Action Lab.